Genre Trouble: The Genre Queer Manifesto (For Young Writers Who Have Contemplated the Genre Straitjacket, When the Story is Enough)

(For Stephanie, on the occasion of her MFA.)

In November 2010, I finished my first ever NaNo novel, the first one that had a completed story arc, the first one that I could hand over to beta readers. 

I sent it to them in fear and trembling, or rather, I sent it off with desperate recklessness and then had a mini-meltdown of too-late panic because Now They Will Know the Awful Stuff on the Inside of My Head, and I Probably Got it Wrong Too.

One of my beta readers told me that it reminded her of her father’s stories of life in the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Another remembered her father pointing out sights in the long-post-WWII Paris of her childhood, “And that is where a swastika banner hung, and that is where Gestapo headquarters was.”

Yet another saw racial and gender passing, “even the cat is passing!”, as well as a dangerous, uncertain cityscape here in Minneapolis.

Two of my beta-readers inundated me with reading (Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, Stephen King’s On Writing, Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series, Tananarive Due’s Joplin’s Ghost and The Good House, the entire Dresden Files series up to that point, Nicola Griffith in all her edgy glory, all of C. E. Murphy). 

Good times.

I learned a ton about genre and dramatic structure, and realized that BrainSister had found Shape-shifter’s Tale so very provocative because all unknowing, it took pretty much every urban-fantasy and paranormal-romance trope and kicked it squarely in the teeth.

We tell our stories, and we tell the shape of the world as we see it. “Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant” as Emily Dickinson said it. We put monsters in suburbia (King), talk about meritocracy and racism in a school for wizards (Rowling), raise ghosts and bend time to talk about artistic lineage and the weight of history (Due). Our stuff doesn’t fit, though. It isn’t commercial. It isn’t just like the others and it doesn’t meet Hollywood spec, because we want us and ours to be the heroes when we’ve been relegated to cannon fodder or local colo(u)r, or our magic doesn’t work the way other people’s magic does, or we aren’t riffing on storylines that everybody recognizes.

BrainSister, beloved provocateur, handed me one of those “how to write genre” books, specifically Passionate Ink by Angela Knight. It purports to tell the reader how to write erotic romance, so I took it in the spirit of professional curiosity about another professional’s opinion. Yes, there is TEH SEXEH in my books, and yes, long ago I vowed that my Sexy-Times Scenes would rival those of any full-time erotica writer, my Scary-Times would give King and Lovecraft and anybody else a good run for their money, and my battle scenes would resurrect Leo Tolstoy and make him hand over the crown for Best War Stories Ever.

On the other hand, I rather suspected her of friendly trolling (you know, so that we could bond over some rage-facing). 

And indeedy so I did.

In a few days, I’m going to post the three-way conversation that BrainSister, Truant, and I had back in August 2012. We talked Fifty Shades of Gray, rape-as-romance, and yes, you will learn what I really thought of this nasty little handbook. OK, no spoiler alert necessary: it gave me flashbacks to my 17th year when I decided to check out the romance genre and I read a stack of Harlequins and fat slick-covered bodice-rippers, and recoiled in horror at (what I’d now call) the casual rape-apology and the complete absence of any notion of consent. (Now they call it “forced seduction” and insist that’s somehow different from “real rape.” I call bullshit.)

Yes, this will be a whole lot less polite than what readers have seen in my professional persona thus far, but in my book, deadly means are justified in defense of physical, emotional, spiritual and cultural integrity. My buddy Devin Harnois has been pointing me at Chuck Wendig’s Terribleminds blog for years; just in last weeks, I have bought nearly all of his writing books. Today he obligingly pointed me to the short-term sale price for books 2 and 3 of his Miriam Black series; like the completist I am, I bought the trilogy.

Wendig’s prose is laced with profanity, the kind of masterful cussing I learned from my momma. He’s got rhythm, and he makes me laugh so hard I can barely breathe. (Comedy pro-tip: if they laugh, the knife goes in deeper.)

I looked at the Wild Horses Gender Roundtable and realized that it was not only long but it was profane, and we were hilariously mean, not to mention there is a nice takedown of a peninsula-sized chunk of pop evo-psych bullshit, courtesy of my Consulting Microbiologist. So why hasn’t it been posted till now?

Life-sucking day job.

Self-censorship.

Yeah, in about that order. So, look for this in coming days.

Meanwhile, back to the Manifesto:

Your story is a picture of how you see things playing out in the world. Yes, it’s under a fantasy or science-fictional or musical-comedy mask, but that just makes it safe to speak. “Time-honored” story formulas embody somebody else’s notion of how the world works, who gets to be the hero(ine), what love looks like, what war is and when it’s justified, and who is human and who is not.

So (to quote my momma) fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.

Write your story.

If it’s true, it’s probably subversive. I had no idea that Shape-shifter’s Tale did a takedown on genre tropes; I was holding up as my model Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, then as now my benchmark for the truly scary. I wrote what she had taught me (and I realized I already knew) about survival and community.

So tell your story first, before you worry how it fits with what everyone else is writing. Tell what’s true. Let it have its own rhythm.

Once you finish, know your enemy. Draw a bead on the lies, and use that knowledge to sharpen your tale into a weapon of unbearable beauty and/or deadly hilarity. I’m a long-lapsed Catholic but my favorite Bible verse remains, “The truth will make you free.” That goes double for artists, who follow the other admonition “Go thou and do likewise,” following in the image and likeness of the Creator, which is Creation (yeah, I’m a heretic–so anathemize me).

And go thou, Young Writers of all ages, and do likewise. Write with courage, joy, and verve. Write what you know, particularly if nobody else seems to know it. Preach the gospel of Oh Hell No, This is the Way it Happened, Mofo.

Turn your back on the stuff that saps your spirit, enrages your soul, depresses and oppresses and stomps into the ground your will to write. Join the anarchist sister- and brother-hood of Telling It Like It Is.

Fuckyeah, Amen. Go forth and Write!

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One Response to Genre Trouble: The Genre Queer Manifesto (For Young Writers Who Have Contemplated the Genre Straitjacket, When the Story is Enough)

  1. This is spectacular! From my sickbed, I holler Hurrah! Huzzah! Hallelujah! and would be more detailed and specific (but trust I will have energy later to more cogently continue in the vein of)–well–Yippee! I am inspired myself now, and isn’t that what you were writing all about?

    So glad you have been able to make choices that now enable Writing Energy to be expended on, who woulda thought? Writing.

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